Fringe Box



Advertising Signs Of The Times

Published on: 27 Feb, 2012
Updated on: 27 Feb, 2012

by David Rose

In the days when St Catherine’s Village had its own local shops, the outside walls of the buildings were liberally plastered with advertising signs. You can see some of them here in this 1900s picture postcard view. As Martin Giles and I were selecting the vintage pictures for our new book, St Catherine’s A Walk Through Time (click here for details), we both knew that this one, from my collection, had to go in.

Some of the adverts in St Catherine’s c. 1910.

In this picture the view of Ye Ode Ship Inn is particularly good. Especially as its hanging sign is very prominent. Then there is also another interesting sign above it that reads ‘REST FOR CYCLISTS’. However, I couldn’t help taking a closer look at the enamel signs on the village shops on the other side of the road.
I confess to having an obsession with old advertising. I love the artwork that was created by our late Victorian and Edwardian forebears and their clever use of lettering and design. I often wonder who those unsung heroes of the commercial art world were? Although some well known artists did produce work for posters and signs (I guess Henri de Toulouse-Latrec’s work is the most famous) most of them have gone to their graves without leaving their names behind. In particular, I adore enamel-advertising signs.
Before I give some details of the signs and the products being advertised on the walls of the St Catherine’s shops, so as to whet your appetite for the humble ‘enamel’, here’s a lovely description of the genre from a book called Street Jewellery A History of Enamel Advertising Signs, by Christopher Baglee and Andrew Morley.
‘Street jewellery, flashing in the winter sunlight, gleaming in gaslight, washed by the rain, impervious to the grime of industrial towns, a hard fact reinforcing its message through total permanence – ‘The Plate That Outlasts All Others’; ruby red and emerald green, sapphire blue, ivory white and ebony black, an abundance of reassuring text and opulent imagery every time you visited the corner shop – the enamel sign.’ These signs consisted of a sheet of steel or iron, on to which the lettering and design was formed by the porcelain enamel process – the re-fusing of powdered glass on to the metal surface.

An enamel sign for R. White’s, which is very similar to the one seen in the St Catherine’s postcard. These often listed a range of soft drinks that were offered by the firm including Kola – long before Coca Cola was sold in Britain. Enamel signs were made to last and many have! Although rust has often begun to eat away at them (when consigned to their final resting place – perhaps a rubbish tip or in the case of this one wedged deep within a hedge), collectors like me lovingly restore them. We use rust remover, plastic car body filler to fill any gaps and then do a bit of re-painting to those missing parts.

They were everywhere by the turn of the 20th century. All kinds of products were advertised on signs fixed to walls and on shop fronts – including R. White’s lemonade, Hudson’s Soap, Nestlé’s milk powder and The People newspaper, as featured here in St Catherine’s.
With the motorcar making its appearance at the time, came signs for petrol and lubricants that adorned the new motor garages that were taking over from the old village blacksmith’s shop.
In urban areas there would be, for example, signs for the local brewery’s beer and ales, while in rural areas you would find signs that advertised items for the agricultural trade. At railway stations there were signs for products such as Player’s cigarettes, Colman’s mustard, Camp coffee and Fry’s chocolate. Here are some details on the firms whose products were advertised on enamel signs at St Catherine’s:

Bottles used by R. White’s more than 100 years ago.

R. White’s mineral waters
The sign can be seen set within a wooden frame standing in front of the shop to the left of the picture. In fact, from the 1890s to the 1930s, I reckon there was hardly a corner or village shop in the Home Counties that didn’t have a sign for this firm at some stage, such was R. White’s extensive advertising campaign.
Robert White began selling ginger beer on the streets of Camberwell in south London in the 1850s. R Whites lemonade is a brand still on sale today and is now made by Britvic. On today’s plastic bottles and cans it states the original firm was established in 1845. However, recent research I have conducted with a fellow collector of old bottles suggests Mr White did not start up until at least 1850. The firm grew rapidly and by 1900 it not only had a large factory in Camberwell making all kinds of soft drinks, but also works in other towns such as Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Windsor and Guildford. The Guildford factory was in Stoke Road. It opened in 1899 and closed in 1925.

A black and white photo of another example of the same enamel sign for The People newspaper, as seen on the wall of the shop in St Catherine’s.

The People newspaper
On the old Post Office/shop in the postcard view there is an enamel sign in the design of a flag advertising The People newspaper. A Captain Armstrong and Sir William Madge founded the paper in 1881. One of its earliest scoops centered on the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders in the Whitechapel area in 1888. In 1972, it changed its name to the Sunday People and two years later switched from broadsheet to tabloid.

Again, an example of a sign that is identical to the one seen in the postcard. Many of Hudson’s signs have this lamplight design within the artwork. The lettering would have read: ‘In Packets’ and ‘In Fine Powder’. This one is awaiting a bit of TLC. However, it spent many years having a ‘second career’ forming a side wall of a compost heap on an allotment somewhere in Godalming!

Hudson’s soap
In 1837, Robert Spear Hudson began making soap powder in the back of his shop in West Bromwich by grinding the coarse bar soap of the day with a mortar and pestle. It’s claimed that his product was the first satisfactory and commercially successful soap powder. Despite his title of ‘Manufacturer of Dry Soap’ Hudson never actually made soap, but bought the raw soap from William Gossage of Widnes. In 1875 he moved his main works to Bank Hall, Liverpool, and his head office to Bootle. At one time the business in Merseyside employed about 1,000 people.
His son took over the firm, eventually selling out to Lever Brothers in 1908, who ran it as a subsidiary enterprise and brand until 1935.

This image is a variation on the sign seen in the postcard. It does, however, feature the Swiss flag logo.

Nestlé’s milk
In the mid-1860s Swiss pharmacist Henri Nestlé began experimenting with various combinations of cow’s milk, wheat flour and sugar in an attempt to develop an alternative source of infant nutrition for mothers who were unable to breast feed. His goal was to help combat the problem of infant mortality due to malnutrition.
He called his new product Farine Lactee Henri Nestlé. People quickly recognised the value of the new product, after Nestlé’s new formula saved a child’s life. Within a few years the product was being sold throughout Europe.
Henri Nestlé realised the power of advertising and branding. In his German dialect, Nestlé means ‘little nest’, hence the well-known logo of a bird’s nest, but he also used a design based on the Swiss flag. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company, founded in 1866 by Americans Charles and George Page, broadened its product line in the mid-1870s to include cheese and infant formulas. The Nestlé Company, which had been purchased from Henri Nestlé by Jules Monnerat in 1874, responded by launching a condensed milk product of its own. The two companies remained fierce competitors until their merger in 1905. Today the Nestlé brand is known throughout the world. In England the name was often anglicised and pronounced Nestles, ignoring the acute accent.

I was unable to find a picture of a Bovril enamel sign exactly the same as the one in the postcard. However, this ‘showcard’ shows how the blanket advertising at the local shop did not stop with the signs on the outside. This cardboard ‘cut-out’ advert would have been inside, probably on the counter, so as to reinforce the sales message to the customer. This one probably dates to the post-war period. Bovril didn’t seem to care who was going to pay the phone bill in the household!

In 1871, Scotsman John Lawson Johnson, was based in Canada, won a order to supply a million tons of tinned beef to the French army fighting the Franco-Prussian War. After experiencing the problems of transporting huge quantities of meat across the Atlantic, he then developed a product that blended meat extract with caramel, salt and spices, in the form of a spread for putting on bread or mixing with water to make a hot drink. It was very tasty and was a more economical product to ship than the tinned beef!
In 1884, after his Canadian factory had been destroyed by fire, Johnson moved to London where he set up a factory to produce his invention. It was re-named Bovril – ‘bo’ being Latin for ox and ‘vril’ from Vrilya, the name given to life force in a long-forgotten novel called The Coming Race, by Bulwer Lytton. Just like White, Hudson and Nestlé, Johnson advertised his product Bovril far and wide. The all proved that advertising really does pay dividends. Bovril is, of course, still popular today – and the shape of the bottles haven’t changed much for well over 120 years!


Bovril bottles from the turn of the 20th century. If our forebears were alive today and went shopping in a modern superstore they’d soon recognise that Bovril is still sold in similar-shaped bottles.

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